FOR many people Robert Mugabe signifies torture, massacres and running Zimbabwe into the ground.
But for cricket star Grant Flower, who grew up during his despotic reign, the longer lasting legacy is the split-up families who were forced to flee and are now dotted around the world.
And the former Essex batsman, 48, should know – his family, from what was then called Rhodesia, were forced to leave their homeland and come to England in the mid-Noughties.
His brother Andy, 51, – the other half of the ‘Flower Power’ formidable batting force – gained international recognition by taking a stand against the regime alongside teammate Henry Olonga by wearing black armbands to ‘mourn the death of democracy’ during the 2003 Cricket World Cup.
He fled to Britain shortly after.
As Mugabe’s death reverberates around the world, it throws up vivid memories for Grant and hundreds of thousands others who were displaced.
Grant was born in Harare, Rhodesia in 1970 and says that in his early years he couldn’t have asked for more.
He tells Sun Online: “We had a lovely time – it was a brilliant country to live in for its climate and freedom to move around. It also had one of the best economies in the world – it used to be on a level with British sterling, if not even better at the time in the very early days.
“We were a big sports-playing family. We were never very rich but my dad worked hard – he was an accountant then later took up coaching. My mum was a teacher and worked in a school. We always went for one holiday a year and were very fortunate like that.
“We weren’t farmers, we were city people and always well catered for.”
From bread basket to laughing stock
But when Grant was 10 years old, Robert Mugabe led Zimbabwe to independence from Britain and came to power.
For many, he was considered the father of a new land, having led the fight against the racist white government of Rhodesia and was the liberator of oppressed people.
Grant recalls: “I don’t think people knew what was going to happen when he became the leader. He didn’t expel all the whites straight away. The country prospered for quite a while under his rule so he was quite smart with that.
“Later on though, with the farm invasions, he changed his policies and Zimbabwe went from being the bread basket of Africa to the laughing stock of Africa.”
Grant met the despot on a few occasions, during his 15 years playing cricket for his country.
“A couple of times at Harare Sports Club, when he was patron of Zimbabwe Cricket he came down to meet the touring teams before the matches.
“We never had huge discussions. It was merely shaking hands and a few pleasantries.
“A lot of people who knew him said he was very smart. He seemed to know what he was doing. He spoke very well until he got old. He made a lot of sound decisions.”
But away from the cricket field, Mugabe’s power was manifesting itself in horrendous ways.
The Gukurahundi massacres took place between 1983 and 1987 and are what Grant calls “the worst aspects” of Mugabe’s reign.
Thousands of Ndebele civilians – a South African ethnic group who were seen as supporter’s of Mugabe’s political opponent Joshua Nkomo – were brutally murdered.
The genocide, which may have had as many as 20,000 victims, was carried out by the Zimbabwean Fifth Brigade — soldiers who had been trained in North Korea at Mugabe’s command.
Thousands of innocent people were forced into re-education camps while more still were shot in public executions and people were burned alive in huts.
In 1992, Mugabe introduced the Land Acquisition Act which allowed the government to seize land without appeal.
“It was his and his followers’ belief that it was their land in the first place. Mugabe was going to turn it round and give it back to those who deserved it – the early settlers.
“Unfortunately, he fast-tracked the process too much, in my opinion, and the people didn’t know how to farm the land. That’s why it’s all such a mess, even today,” Grant says.
My friend’s dad was murdered
In 2000, the situation intensified when Mugabe’s presidency was threatened by an important general election and the newly formed Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Mugabe responded by lashing out at farmers, who were seen as backers of the MDC.
His followers, which he called “war veterans”, occupied farms owned by white people and many of them, along with their black employees, were murdered.
At least 10,000 were displaced in the violence, with the majority of the bloodshed at the hand of Mugabe’s supporters.
Grant had many friends in the farming sector.
“A lot of sports people came from farming background but for me and my brother were touring with cricket so we were outside of the country when a lot of the troubles were happening,” he says.
His teammates received threats and the dad of one of his good friends, Jason Oates, was shot dead during a raid at his farm in 2000.
Armed thugs burst into his house and killed 65-year-old Tony and injured his wife.
“There was whole host of beatings, kidnappings, house invasions.
“The elections were coming up so it was all part of Mugabe’s reign to have a bearing on the elections and scare people into voting for him.
“People were being murdered, farms were invaded and farmers murdered.
“We witnessed [the violence] intermittently but that was one of the things that led to my brother taking the stand with Henry Olonga. My brother was approached by a good friend who played cricket with us, who was a member of the MDC.
“Then he approached Henry and they thought it would be a stronger stance to have one black man and one white man so people would take notice more. And that’s what happened,” he says.
Taking a stand
In the 2003 World Cup match against Namibia at Harare Sports Club, the duo wore black armbands and released a statement urging “those responsible to stop the abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe. In doing so, we pray that our small action may restore sanity and dignity to our Nation”.
This brave act led to an arrest warrant for Henry – Zimbabwe’s first black Test cricketer, now 43 – who was wanted on charges of treason.
Both men faced death threats and it effectively ended their international careers.
Grant says: “It was a big decision to make because they both had to leave the country. Henry was threatened as were his family. My brother was threatened, though as a family we were never affected ourselves.
“However both of them did have to leave the country.
“They thought it was worth standing up for and I still believe it was a good thing, even if nothing much was achieved at the time.
“People around the world did take notice but probably not enough came from it.
Turbulent and terrifying times
“We played last game of that World Cup in South Africa and Henry flew straight from there to the UK because he was told it wasn’t safe to go back to Zimbabwe.
“Andrew went back for one or two days, sorted things out and left after that. They were turbulent times.
“Henry was terrified. If you’re a black person living in a majority black population and you go against your own people, you’re taking a huge risk. It was very brave of him.”
But Grant’s family weren’t totally unscathed.
He says: “My dad’s half-brother is still part of the MDC and there have been attempts to get rid of him. His wife was imprisoned, he was imprisoned during Mugabe’s reign.
“It’s not the first time our family’s been through stuff – but I think living in Africa you get used to it to a certain extent, which isn’t ideal but it sort of toughens you up.
“And that’s probably what made us tougher cricketers.”
After the World Cup, Andy and their parents moved to England, joining two younger siblings who’d moved over after school.
Grant joined them two years later in 2005.
Grant, who enjoyed “six or seven really good seasons” at Essex before going back to Zimbabwe to coach, says that a lot of good Zimbabwean cricketers are now playing in England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
“If we had all our players back there in Zimbabwe would be very competitive at this stage but unfortunately that’s not the case. Their domestic cricket is in a very sad state. Millions are owed to the ICC so I’m not sure if Zimbabwe cricket is repairable,” he says.
“I was lucky to play there and coach and I was lucky to come over to England and get a great opportunity in Essex so I have no regrets.
“Hopefully at some stage in the future I could return there but at this stage that’s not the case,” he says.
Grant has just been released from his job as Pakistan’s batting coach, where he’s been since 2014, and is back in Haslemere, Surrey, living with his parents.
Reflecting on Mugabe’s death he says: “You never want to celebrate anyone’s death. Even though he was a dictator and tyrant, he was also very clever with it and that’s why he served Zimbabwe for so many years.
Zimbabwe cricket’s turbulent timeline
- Rhodesia was represented in the South African cricket tournament, the Currie Cup, between 1904 and 1932, then from 1946 until independence.
- Zimbabwe became an associate member of the ICC in 1981.
- In January 1992, Zimbabwe were granted Test status and drew in their first match against India.
- Three years later, in 1995, they scored their first victory Test match against Pakistan – but lost the series 2-1.
- In February 2003, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga wore back armbands during a World Cup match as a protest at the political situation in their home country.
- In the 2003 World Cup, British prime minister Tony Blair and Australian PM John Howard said they would prefer it if their teams did not travel to Zimbabwe, but did not ban them from doing so.
- In 2004, Heath Streak was sacked from his position as captain of the national team due to political pressure.
- Their Test status was suspended after 15 players dropped out of the squad following their captain’s sacking.
- They played eight Test matches in 2005 after the suspension was lifted, but would then not play another Test match until 2011.
- Following embarrassing defeats to New Zealand and India in 2006, Zimbabwe’s cricket board announced self-imposed ban.
- Mugabe’s government replaced the board of Zimbabwe Cricket with an interim committee and announced a further 12 month withdrawal from Test cricket.
- In 2013 players went on strike which led to a suspension of the four and one-day competitions.
- Last year the Zimbabwe Cricket Board admitted they were unable to pay thier staff, including players.
- Earlier this summer Zimbabwe were suspended by the ICC over politcal meddling.
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“He created a lot of enemies but he also created a following. He did a lot for education – that’s why Zimbabwe has one of the best education environments in Africa and a lot of people have their white children still at schools there.
“There’s still a lot of good young people there so hopefully it will be turned round in the future”.
But he’s well aware that the terrible hangovers from Mugabe’s reign will be felt for a while yet.
“People have long memories and there are a lot more bad memories than there are positive things he did for the country.
“He split up a lot of families and he massacred a lot of people and those things aren’t going to be forgotten quickly.”